Listening to the air-raid sirens ring out on Tuesday, during the country's largest-ever civil defense exercise - dubbed Turning Point 3 - some people wondered whether the unprecedented preparations for war are a harbinger of difficult times to come. Do defense planners know something the rest of us don't?
Certainly, the drill simulated the most extreme scenario facing Israel at this time - a war on multiple fronts, with Iranian, Syrian and Hizbullah projectiles, some of them unconventional, raining down on the state.
"We're preparing for the worst, although in the end we may find ourselves in less drastic situations," a senior defense official who was heavily involved in managing the drill this week told The Jerusalem Post. "Some of these scenarios are unlikely to materialize."
With unusual candor, he addressed a question on the minds of many: How close is Israel to a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, an act which could see some of the scenarios simulated during the exercise play out?
"We won't do anything vis-a-vis the Iranians without a green light from the Americans," the official said. "It's clear we don't have that green light now. This drill is not a preparation for Iran."
What defense planners say, however, is that the exercise is the product of a painful learning curve, which began during the shameful failures of civil defense measures during the 2006 Second Lebanon War. During that time, hundreds of thousands of people were stranded in poorly maintained bomb shelters, and cooperation between the IDF's Home Front Command and local authorities in the North was essentially nonexistent.
Since then, a National Emergency Authority has been set up to coordinate military and civilian responses to wars (and to natural disasters, such as earthquakes), and authorities have placed an unprecedented level of attention on the issue of civil defense.
CRITICS OF the exercise have questioned the effectiveness of such preparations, and have asked whether the drill caused more harm than good, by possibly distressing the public.
"We know from surveys that drills actually lower stress and anxiety," the defense source said. "Other countries drill earthquakes and storms. Here, the population can see that the entire national system is preparing for national emergencies. We are more prepared after every drill."
"We live in a country where it is very desirable to be prepared for a national emergency situation," said Lt. Matan Greenstein, spokesman for Home Front Command. "We shouldn't be hysterical, but we should understand that those who prepare will be ready. It's only rational. Every drill is a stage towards that goal. The drills will become like furniture - people will get used to them, and they will get comfortable with them. The drills will be accessible, a part of life."
IN THE months leading up to Turning Point 3, two planning committees meticulously prepared dozens of scenarios which Home Front Command and local authorities would have to deal with. The committees were headed by former OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. (res.) Ze'ev Livne and Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yair Naveh.
Their scenarios of nightmarish mass casualty attacks were kept secret from the rest of those who would simulate the exercise - until this week. On Sunday, the committees began transmitting their scenarios to response committees over an internal military Internet network. The groups sat in separate rooms at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv.
"We were surprised by the drastic level of the scenarios," the defense source said, after spending hours in the command-and-control room reviewing the simulations. "The drill planners chose to enact the most difficult forms of emergencies."
These included a chemical missile attack on Hadera, and a barrage of conventional missiles on Ben-Gurion Airport. According to the drill, by Monday, the country had entered the 11th day of a three-front war, and the IDF had begun a land offensive into Syria.
On Tuesday, the drill moved into its next phase, in which the emergency response teams at the Defense Ministry mobilized Home Front Command forces and local authority officials on the ground to deal with the simulated incidents.
In Kiryat Gat, a building was demolished, and rescue crews were sent in to bring out the casualties - in this case dolls placed in the building before its destruction. The rescue operation was observed by dozens of foreign delegates.
Meanwhile, as IDF troops "drove deeper into Syria," missile barrages on the home front became more intensive.
"This scenario is based on experiences in the Second Lebanon War," the defense source said, noting that Hizbullah kept up its rocket attacks, as the army pushed further into Lebanon.
A number of new procedures were tested during the course of Turning Point 3, including the evacuation of physically disabled children and the elderly. Home Front Command also tested a system designed by a start-up company which sends a text message alert to cellphones, warning of missile attacks. Such a system could overcome the glitches inherent in the air-raid siren system, which became apparent on Tuesday when they went off.
Home Front Command received 98 phone calls from members of the public who reported not hearing the sirens. Undoubtedly, many others also failed to hear the alert, but did not report the glitch.
"We checked 2,300 sirens, and found that a high percentage of them worked," Greenstein said.
"We know many citizens didn't hear the siren... [But] this is the purpose of the drill," the defense source said, adding that the failures would be investigated, and faulty sirens repaired.
The planners say they are particularly pleased with the high level of cooperation between Home Front Command and local authorities. "Ninety four percent of local authorities took part in this," Greenstein said. "Cooperation with schools has also been very good."
Addressing the question of a lack of civil defenses in Arab communities, a problem which became apparent during the Second Lebanon War, Greenstein said he was confident that the gap would be bridged with time.
"Seventy six percent of Israelis have a safe area - either a private or public bomb shelter or a safe room - to go to during an attack. True, 24% still do not, but 30,000 safe areas are being added every year. The gap will definitely disappear," he said.
Emergency planners are expecting the general population to take an increasingly active role in similar civil defense drills scheduled for the future. As Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna'i said this week, "We are preparing ourselves for the most severe incidents. Next year, the public will be involved in a more intensive manner."